Benefield: Elsie Allen football hopes to be on the rise

Optimism is often a matter of perspective.

Derek Hester, last year’s junior varsity football coach at Elsie Allen High School, believes some of the athletes he coached last year will make for a solid foundation on this year’s varsity squad.

“We had a pretty strong team,” Hester said.

Their record?

“We actually lost every game.”

But Hester is quick to point out that two seasons ago, not only did the JV squad lose every game, they got blown out. They sometimes forfeited. Last season, they were actually in some games.

Progress must often be judged in context.

Elsie Allen hasn’t won a varsity football game since 2013. They don’t have enough players to field a JV squad this season, so Hester has been named defensive coordinator for the varsity team. But more important than that, more important than his role as JV coach if and when they get enough guys out, Hester has been named the head varsity coach for 2017.

For anyone keeping track, that will make Hester, 35, the seventh head football coach since November 2014.

It’s no wonder that when talking about the important qualities of a new head coach, the words “consistency” and “stability” come up frequently.

“We had two head coaches before the season even began last year. Without that consistency, it has a snowball effect,” Hester said.

And the Lobos players have been caught in an avalanche of inconsistency - which isn’t their fault - that has eaten away at the football program.

A quick look back shows a near-revolving door of coaches.

At the end of the 2014 season, Madison Lott, who also serves as Elsie Allen’s athletic director as well as the varsity boys basketball coach, stepped down from the head football job after two years at the helm and five with the team. The school tapped a newcomer to take over and then hired Bill Wight, a guy who had played football at Montgomery High under Jason Franci, as one of his assistants. Wight, citing a distaste for the direction the new guy was taking, walked.

Then the new guy walked, too. It was the close of the school year, when coaches are reaching out to players about summer passing league, conditioning programs and weight training. Terrible timing.

The school asked Wight to come back, to take over as head coach. He called it a “dream.”

But by the end of October, he was gone, too. Let go by school officials, with little explanation.

In stepped Lott to close out the season with the Lobos. But the team was, yet again, looking for someone to lead the program.

This spring, the school tapped Jim Klaczak, a journeyman with a long football resume, to take over.

Last month, after what school officials described as a stretch of little-to-no communication from the new head coach, Klaczak was gone, too. School officials said Klaczak did not follow through on the hiring process. Klaczak did not return calls for comment.

“It was surprising to us. We were looking forward to him being here,” said longtime principal Mary Gail Stablein.

“We had to move on,” she said.

So yet again, Lott was called back into the fray to help navigate the waters of uncertainty that are starting to feel all too familiar.

“I feel bad for the kids,” Lott said. “Obviously, they feel as if no one is there to support them.”

But Lott, who is about as devoted a Lobos supporter as one could want, especially for someone who isn’t a teacher or staff member at Elsie, doesn’t linger long on that thought.

“We are just trying to move on from it,” he said.

And Lott has a plan. A plan he hopes means the end of this yo-yo routine that has come to mar the Lobos’ gridiron efforts.

Lott will spend this season as head coach, handle the administrative side of things, walk Hester through the routine. Then he’ll hand over the reins.

“I probably should have just hired him last time,” Lott said.

But before this latest vacancy, Hester had not asked for the job. His input was sought on candidates but he didn’t put his hat in the ring. Until this time.

And Lott sees the logic in Hester’s appointment.

“He has stuck through two years of coaches; it’s been a lot of drama. And he has been the consistent force,” Lott said. “He never complains, he just does his job, doesn’t give the kids excuses.

“He is the guy that I think we could really build our football program with.”

Stablein, for one, is ready. She called athletics a priority on campus. Athletics are a way for students to connect with school, with staff, with fellow students, she said.

“In years past, it probably hasn’t been conveyed that way because we’ve been about school improvement,” she said.

Elsie Allen, more than any other high school in Sonoma County, for years bore the weight of No Child Left Behind and the punitive system of corrections and mandates prescribed by law. Enrollment suffered, athletes left.

In its 22 years of existence, the school hasn’t experienced a lot of success in athletics. The boys track team won league titles in 1998 and 1999 when the school was part of the North Bay League. The boys basketball team earned the Sonoma County League banner in 2015 and the boys soccer team shared the SCL title with Petaluma last fall.

And that is the context for the optimism being expressed at Elsie. There is also appreciation - for Lott stepping up yet again, for Hester committing now to a program that is on undeniably shaky ground.

“I’m feeling really good about Derek Hester coming in,” Stablein said. “He has a solid JV program. He’s a consistent force and I think the kids felt that he was out there with them and just conveyed to them that he was there for them.”

That’s a lot of pressure on Hester. And it’s not pressure to win. It’s heavier than that. It’s pressure to see this through, to be there on the first day of practice and the last.

Lott thinks he’s the right guy.

“He’s very loyal,” he said. “I would be the happiest man in the world if Derek decides to stay here and run this program.”

And one gets the sense that Lott says that not because he’s tired of being pulled back in to help, but because maybe Hester is finally the right man for the job.

Hester hopes so. He’s honing his skills with Xs and Os. He’s also studying to be a teacher. He wants to work at Elsie. He talked about being “a presence” on campus. He’s thinking long term.

“It needs to be a huge part of someone’s life,” he said. “Work, family, football - it’s got to be that way. To me, what is really important more than any of that is just consistent commitment. Kids will pick up on that.”

And that is the context for optimism this season at Elsie Allen. It’s all about perspective.

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